Yesterday I began reviewing some of what’s been wrong in the Charismatic movement over time. Although present discussions going on all around are sparked by the Todd Bentley / Lakeland revelations of the recent weeks, this is not my prime concern here except insofar as the issues there fall into a pattern which should have been avoidable based on past experience. In essence, I am suggesting that there are certain weaknesses in the charismatic movement which make it susceptible to the kinds of abuse and excess which have caused the downfall of leaders and confusion or injury to some of the followers in the movement.
As I was wrapping up my post yesterday, I offered the observation that the types of issues could be summarized as falling within three primary concerns:
(1) A lack of humility, coupled with a focus on the man and the miracle.
(2) A lack of balanced grounding in Scripture using standard hermeneutic methods.
(3) A weak understanding of the work of Christ and the purpose of the church.
Even these three interrelate, but having leveled these three major charges, I need to provide some further explanation.
Humility, Man, & Miracle
In part due to a recognition and even emphasis on “the anointing,” individual leaders can be elevated in the eyes of followers who seek to gain an impartation from them. Evidence of the miraculous in their ministry is taken to be evidence of the anointing, and although it may be stated that God uses fallen people and miracles are not an endorsement of the individual, in practice, the miraculous is taken as a sign of spiritual power garnered through “closeness” to God. In this context, it is assumed that the leader hears from God more directly and his words therefore tend to carry more weight with their followers, even if they press past the bounds of orthodoxy.
The leader himself is aware of having been placed on a pedestal, and it is an innate part of the human condition that this knowledge will eventually lead to the belief that he belongs on the pedestal. From the pulpit, the leader may say that he has no special power or ability, just that he prays or fasts or seeks God in a particular fashion. Such statements in practice imply that while the ability is not innate to the leader, he has “earned” it from God through his actions — as might any of his followers. The leader is rather likely to hold this view himself, which reinforces his sense of entitlement.
The pride of the leader in this scenario makes him unapproachable and unteachable, not willing to consider correction when required. Meanwhile, the longer this goes on, the more his followers have the pedestal-view of him reinforced. The brewing scene is clearly a dangerous one, where the leader becomes the focus for him and for his followers, who seek to emulate him. In their emulation, they also begin to focus on themselves and the ways in which they too can gain spiritual power for whatever ends they might deem appropriate.
Gnostic Handling of Scripture
Even in my charismatic days, it used to make my skin crawl when I heard a message explaining some type or shadow from the Old Testament. Being Bible-College educated I knew better, despite the fact that leaders quite a number of years my seniors were “expounding” scripture this way. I’ve posted on this in particular before, and some discussion has ensued — the fact that the New Testament authors and some of the church fathers interpreted scripture this way has caused some to feel that we also should read the Old Testament through these glasses. There is much to be said about this, but fundamentally, the text cannot mean now what it never meant then. In other words, Moses didn’t write things that nobody understood for 8,000 years until we came along: rather, he wrote to his original audience, who understood the meaning of his words.
Perhaps even more common are messages explaining the “hidden keys” or “steps to…” or similar verbiage. It is presupposed in these messages that scripture has hidden secrets which are not readily apparent to most readers but which in some form or another yield particular results such as success, health, harmony, and prosperity. Again, it seems difficult to fathom why God would “hide” some of these most “important” ideas, nor to imagine how if he did hide them, they remained so for millennia.
I added a word to the title of this section which wasn’t in my original description: gnostic. Both of these methods of handling scripture seem to require some sort of esoteric knowledge which is not readily available to all, meaning that not just anyone can read and interpret the Bible. Such a concept is gnostic in origin and effectively places a gap between the biblical interpreter and the common man, as outlined in the above section. Worse, it creates a view of our relationship to spiritual forces that has more in common with magic than with Christian spirituality. In magic, it is clearly presumed that particular rules exist for dealing with spiritual beings, and if those rules are followed the right outcome will be produced and the spiritual realm will be available to do our bidding.
The OT speaks of a messiah to come, and some of the characteristics of this messiah are given. Understanding what the Jewish people were waiting for based on their understanding of the OT at the time helps us see how Jesus fulfills the criteria — and in some cases, how the Jewish nation missed it. This way, when Jesus quotes a particular bit of OT scripture or the events of the gospels allude to something in the OT, we can understand that as a messianic claim. Remove that understanding, and the messianic proof is down to what Jesus said and the miracles [he did]. Take those two proofs into the modern day — “hypothetically,” let’s say someone calls himself an apostle and a healing miracle occurs when he prays. If those two proofs alone were adequate for Jesus and him, it would add implied credence to whatever our hypothetical apostle teaches… no matter how outlandish or heretical.
Setting scripture as the plumb line for doctrine, it is absolutely imperative that it be handled rightly and that it be allowed to function as the yardstick for all that is taught. If any teaching cannot stand the scrutiny of accepted hermeneutical principles, it must be set aside as not having the weight of scripture behind it.
Christ & the Church
One of the most rampant maladies within the charismatic movement is legalism. While they may often speak vehemently against it, often the alternative position is simply another form of legalism. The understanding of scripture as offering keys and steps to particular outcomes encourages the misunderstanding that the Christian life consists largely of rules and patterns to be followed in order to achieve one’s desired ends. This particular point relates strongly to the preceding section on the handling of scripture, where the Old Testament is particularly mishandled. In the New Testament, the epistles may be sought first for understanding on how to live and what ought to be done rather than first considering the gospels and what Jesus said and did. Tragically, somewhere in this milieu is bred a failure to appreciate how utterly Christ has broken the requirements of the Law and of the legalism that is reflected in it. Charismatics may well understand that they aren’t prohibited from eating a pork chop, but they often substitute other behaviours which are seen as necessary to maintaining the favour of God.
As might be expected from what I have said so far, the form of faith being described is very focused on the individual self. The teaching described focuses on what the individual must do in order to obtain a given outcome. When the gospel message is considered in this context, the almost inescapable conclusion is that Christ’s death was to serve individual prosperity, and the church is a place where his followers encourage one another in the pursuit of their aims and goals. An obviously self-centered view of the gospel arises and yields a corrupted notion of the purpose of the church. Fundamentally, the church exists for the good of the world, not the happiness and comfort of its members. The charismatic church may understand the need for evangelism based on the Great Commission, but in practice the charismatic church is largely non-missional, seeking its own needs first.
I would hope for outpourings of the Holy Spirit in significant forms of revival, and one naturally thinks of the charismatic movement as a likely place for this to occur. If, however, they are to properly handle such an event, they must have a solid understanding of the purpose of the church, which must somehow relate to any such revival. Of course, the necessary corrective action to all of the aforementioned areas will greatly enhance any handling of such an event, and they interrelate such that improvements in one area may be joined to better understanding in another.
Are the Charismatics Unique?
Are these three criticisms applicable to the evangelical or fundamentalist church as a whole? To one degree or another, I think this is probably the case. While not generally given to the same hermeneutical errors, others may be found — dispensationalism, for example. Biblical interpreters following sound principles of exegesis may still be arrogant, and the charismatic church hardly has a corner on self-centered expressions of church. While the critiques I level here are directed at the charismatic church, I would hope that in these we might all see — regardless of our own ecclesiological stripe — a reflection of the hazards to which we ourselves are susceptible. To deny this is merely to fall prey to pride and a poor judgment of oneself. Even as the gaze of the Christian community is squarely set on a significant charismatic misfire, we will do well to consider our own vulnerabilities to similar outcomes.
In Lee Grady’s editorial last week, he said something that others have noted as well:
A prominent Pentecostal evangelist called me this week after Bentley’s news hit the fan. He said to me: “I’m now convinced that a large segment of the charismatic church will follow the anti-Christ when he shows up because they have no discernment.” Ouch. Hopefully we’ll learn our lesson this time and apply the necessary caution when an imposter shows up.
It seems to me that this Pentecostal evangelist is simply committing a different error. Grady points out yet another, namely that we’re just plain gullible. Of the comment I’ve quoted, John Piper wrote,
Charismatics will not be the only ones who follow the Antichrist when he rises. So will the mass of those who today in thousands of evangelical churches belittle the truth of biblical doctrine as God’s agent to set us free (John 8:32).
Discernment is not created in God’s people by brokenness, humility, reverence, and repentance. It is created by biblical truth and the application of truth by the power of the Holy Spirit to our hearts and minds. When that happens, then the brokenness, humility, reverence, and repentance will have the strong fiber of the full counsel of God in them. They will be profoundly Christian and not merely religious and emotional and psychological.
The common denominator of those who follow the Antichrist will not be “charismatic.” It will be, as Paul says, “they refused to love the truth.”
Lakeland was new in one startling regard: It brought many of the different streams of charismatic practice together.
Looking over the most recent “revivals,” each had a flavor unique to their particular stream. Toronto was largely a Third Wave charismatic happening. Pensacola was Pentecostal.
But Lakeland was different; it attracted everyone….
The days ahead will be marked by increasingly bold attempts to unite all the streams of the charismatic movement. I believe that will not be a good thing because instead of bringing a cleansing to the movement, it will instead unite all the craziness. Lakeland already proved this to be the case. We have not seen the last of this, though.
It feels counterintuitive to suggest that any increase of unity within the body of Christ is a bad thing, but I do see what Dan is getting at… unless these converging streams bring or produce changes along the lines I (and others) have described, the outcome could very easily be an increase in momentum toward error. If anything, this highlights the stakes for us — and how imperative these corrective adjustments are for all of us. Dan concludes with the sage advice, “Be open to the Lord, but never stop being watchful, faithful, and wise.”
Tomorrow I’ll share something that I used to tell the leaders I worked with in order to help check themselves to stay focused and properly oriented.